UNC-Chapel Hill leaders come under fire at emergency faculty meeting

By: - August 6, 2020 5:00 am
The campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. (Photo: Mx Granger/Creative Commons CC0)

Chancellor’s failure to share health department’s reopening recommendations called a “breach of trust”

The Orange County Health Director has urged the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to move to online education for the fall semester and keep on-campus housing to an absolute minimum as the COVID-19 pandemic in the county worsens.

The campus will be doing neither of those things, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said Wednesday.

Health Director Quintana Stewart made the recommendations in a July 29 memo to Guskiewicz. Faculty, staff, students and members of the community only became aware of the memo Wednesday, when it was reported by media outlets including Policy Watch.

In the memo, Stewart expressed concern over signs returning students have already contributed to spikes and clusters of infections. She recommended an all-online fall semester or, at a minimum, holding the first five weeks of the semester online-only. She also recommended the school restrict on-campus housing to those who would otherwise have nowhere to live, in order to slow community spread of the disease.

Confronted with the letter and questions about why his office did not disclose the health department’s concerns, Guskiewicz told an emergency Faculty Executive Committee meeting the school is taking several lesser steps to address them. These will include reducing classroom capacity to 30% and dorm capacity to 64% — an announcement that students, staff and faculty said they learned of for the first time at Wednesday’s meeting.

Guskiewicz emphasized the school has been meeting with the Orange County Health Department throughout the summer and met with it again Friday after Stewart’s letter. But these were recommendations, Guskiewicz said — not an order. The UNC System has said schools would have to follow an order by the health department, but not recommendations.

The chancellor described the Orange County Health Department’s recommendations as “another piece of information we have received.”  But after consulting with UNC health experts and the UNC System — which will make the final decision on closures — the university decided not to follow the health department recommendations.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

“We believe, based on the advice of our public health and infectious disease experts who weighed in on this last week, that we still have a roadmap that can bring people back safely in this environment who have chosen to do so,” Guskiewicz said.

Guskiewicz said he spoke to UNC System President Peter Hans and former Interim UNC President Bill Roper last week to discuss the health department recommendations.

“We were advised to stay the course,” Guskiewicz said.

Orange County Health Department officials disagree with the decision, he said, and have made that clear.

“They still had concerns, no question,” Guskeiwicz said, “But who doesn’t have concerns?”

Faculty ‘dismay’

Guskiewicz’s statements were not well received by faculty.

The emergency faculty meeting came together quickly Wednesday after a letter was sent to the chancellor by Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, regarding the health department recommendations.

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty

“It feels like a serious breach of trust to have kept such recommendations from the campus community of faculty, staff and students,” Chapman said.

In the email, for which the subject line was “Dismay,” Chapman went on to say she has personally changed her plans to hold an in-person orientation for doctoral students this week. The class she planned to teach in person this semester will change to remote, she wrote.

“I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department,” Chapman wrote.

Such a move by the faculty’s chair could lead many UNC-Chapel Hill faculty already uncomfortable with teaching in-person this semester to follow suit, citing the health department recommendations.

Chapman pointed to already rampant flouting of mask and distancing rules on campus, in student stores and at off campus gatherings.

“These look like off-ramps to me,” referring to the term UNC-Chapel Hill has used to indicate things that would lead the school to detour from its “roadmap to return” and back to the online-only instruction of last semester.

Chapman reiterated her disappointment that the administration kept the recommendations from faculty, who have been working for months to make the university’s return plan a success despite their reservations.

“However, with outside guidance from public health authorities such as is included in this letter, to proceed without completely candid discussion with your faculty, as well as other interested parties, feels like a betrayal,” Chapman wrote.

Deb Aikat, a member of the Faculty Executive Committee, said it is at least “a disconnect” in communication between the administration, faculty and the students.

“Today the chancellor and the provost have shown almost a willing suspension of disbelief,” Aikat said. “Like, ‘Oh my God…the community, Orange County Health Department and campus community are not with us?’”

That should have been obvious well before now, Aikat said, after months of repeated concerns, protests and petitions over the return plan. All of that seems to have had little impact on the administration’s determination to open for in-person instruction in the fall, Aikat said.

“It feels like they are struggling to say that everybody is wrong, and they feel like they are doing the right thing,” Aikat said. “‘We think we’re doing the right thing,’ they say, “So this is the way we’re going to go.’”

If even objections from the Orange County Health Department don’t make a dent, Aikat said, it seems obvious that the administration does not have the power to change course.

“This is all going to be decided at the UNC System level, the Board of Governors,” Aikat said. “The chancellor is in a position where he does not have the power to make this decision.”

Chapman seemed to agree during the faculty meeting.

“As I understand it, the system said ‘stay the course,’ Chapman said. “So that’s what’s happening. We might not all be fine with that, but it sounds like that’s what’s happening.”

Policy Watch reached out to the UNC System office and UNC Board of Governors Wednesday. Emails and phone messages were not returned.

Eric Muller, Faculty Executive Committee member,

Eric Muller, another Faculty Executive Committee member, also expressed frustration such strong public health recommendations from Orange County could be dismissed because they were not in the form of an order.

“Does that mean that someone or some group of people on our team affirmatively disagreed with the advice we received from the Orange County Health Department?” Muller asked Guskeiwicz during the faculty meeting.

Guskiewicz did not answer.

“There are a lot of opinions about what to do and the rationale for doing it,” Provost Bob Blouin said in answer to the question. “And there is sometimes unanimity around the experts and sometimes there is less than unanimity around the experts.”

Blouin also said the university had to consider that most students have either begun moving onto campus or had signed leases off-campus. They had to consider the impact on them of dramatically reversing course.

Health department employees dispute UNC leaders’ characterization of county-campus communications 

Both Blouin and Guskiewicz framed the Orange County Health Department recommendations as having come suddenly and at the last moment. Guskiewicz said he did not know the motivation of the health director in writing the letter rather than communicating the recommendations to the school in the course of their frequent meetings on the return plan.

Two employees of the Orange County Health Department with knowledge of the discussions, however, told Policy Watch Wednesday that that is a mischaracterization.

The employees, who Policy Watch agreed not to identify because they expressed concern about being fired for discussing health department discussions with the university, said the department has frequently expressed its concerns with the university’s move-in plan. Those concerns have become more urgent in the last month, they said, as infection and hospitalization numbers have not improved and infection clusters among returning student athletes have made it clear students were not following masking or distancing rules.

“The department’s recommendations were not having any effect on the university, which just wanted to continue with the plan it had,” one of the employees said. “So now there is a letter the public can read with those concerns spelled out and the chancellor announces, on the same day that it becomes public instead of a private conversation, that they are making changes to the housing and classroom plans. It’s curious how that works.”

The employee pointed to the university’s own COVID-19 dashboard. It shows 175 total infections at the university as of Tuesday, when it was last updated. Of those, 139 have been students. While the university is not requiring tests of students moving back to campus, the total cumulative infection rate among students who have been tested at the school is 10.6% as of Tuesday. The dashboard shows 13 student infections the week of July 20 and a positive rate of 11.1%. It shows 13 student infections for the week of July 27, the last week before most students began to move onto campus, for a positive rate of 8.6%. The current statewide infection rate is 8%. As most students have not yet moved onto campus, the health department source said, those elevated rates likely represent just the beginning. [Note: This paragraph has been update for clarity to give week-by-week breakdowns of infections recorded at UNC-Chapel Hill using the latest information from the school’s COVID-19 dashboard].

“Looking at that data, of course the health department has a problem with this plan,” the employee said.

The lack of a public record of the county health department’s position was a problem, the other employee said, because it allowed the university to say publicly that it was working in collaboration with the department without actually taking any of their recommendations.

“You can’t say that you are working with public health experts, public health authorities, on your plan and then overrule those experts and authorities in your actual plan,” the employee said.

“If they are going to say that they think they know better than the Orange County Health Department, then they need to say that publicly,” the source said. “They need to say publicly that they’ve seen the recommendations but they’re not going to follow it. People should know that.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.